Minister pushes back against Athabasca University president's defence of virtual campus

Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides says Athabasca University must come up with plans to resume and expand in-person operations at its main campus in the northern Alberta town. 

University to provide recruitment plan to government by June 30

Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides wants Athabasca University to come up with plans to resume and expand in-person operations on its main campus in the northern Alberta town of 3,000. (Government of Alberta)

Alberta Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides says Athabasca University must come up with plans to resume and expand in-person operations at its main campus in the northern Alberta town. 

"Government has provided very clear direction to the institution," Nicolaides told CBC News on Tuesday. 

"We've asked for some very specific implementation plans due to government on June 30 and I fully expect those reports and implementation plans to be provided."

The directives, announced by Premier Jason Kenney in Athabasca on March 24, would move AU away from its transition to near-virtual operations. 

The government wants AU to submit a plan by June 30 to retain and expand the number of positions based in Athabasca. The university must consolidate its executive and administrative positions at the main campus and develop a plan for bringing employees back to campus after two years of working from home. 

Nicolaides's comments come after AU president Peter Scott sent an email to staff last Thursday that appeared to defy the government's plans. It said the institution's move to a virtual campus would continue.

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"The comments and opinions expressed by government officials during the town meeting were not indicative of the reciprocal and consultative relationship that AU has had for many years with the Government of Alberta and the Ministry of Advanced Education," Scott wrote.

"I would like to underline that our operations, mission, and mandate remain unchanged."

Scott wrote that the institution's move to an "online virtual campus" with "a near-virtual workforce" would continue, and suggested a requirement for staff to live in Athabasca would inhibit the university's ability to hire.

"To ensure AU's future success, long-term sustainability, and the success of our learners, the university will continue to prioritize the needs of our more than 43,000 learners worldwide by ensuring we continue to hire and retain the best and the brightest talent," the email said.

Nicolaides said AU can fulfil its mandate to provide distance learning from a base in Athabasca. 

"We have an array of colleges with satellite campuses across all of our rural communities. They do well. They recruit high-quality talent and not just even within Alberta, but globally," he said. "So I'm confident that we'll be able to do the same here." 

Email called 'defiant'

The announcement was viewed as a victory for locals involved in a year-long campaign to keep Athabasca University operating in Athabasca.

In spring 2020, the university's board of governors voted to transition to what it called "near-virtual" operations. At the same time, employees at the main campus moved to working at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Residents began to fear that the work-at-home arrangement would stay permanent, and eventually allow hundreds of well-paying jobs to leave the town of 3,000. 

A sign.
Athabasca University is Canada's largest online university, hosting 40,000 students linked up virtually across Canada and beyond with instructors. (CBC)

The grassroots group requested support from area councils, penned op-eds in newspapers and hired a lobbyist to get the ear of government. 

Athabasca Mayor Rob Balay said the tone of Scott's email shocked him. 

"I saw it is almost defiant to some degree," Balay said. 

Balay is pleased the government has recently appointed three people to the board of governors who either live in Athabasca or have a close connection to the town.

When he was on the board, Balay was the sole community representative. 

The university is making some moves to consolidate in Athabasca. Leases for satellite offices in Edmonton and Calgary have not been renewed. 

Past contracts required university presidents to work out of the main Athabasca campus. That provision no longer exists. 

Scott, an academic from Australia, became the AU president in January. The university said he would reside in Alberta but refused to get more specific. It is not clear how the government's directives will change where he works and lives. 

The university said Scott was not available for an interview with CBC News.